From: John Young <jya@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 23 Feb 1997 13:15:34 -0500
Financial Times, February 23, 1997, p. VIII.
Disney's bid for Hugo's mantle
Jackie Wullschlager on a fascinating exhibition which
attempts to show how close Hugo and Disney are in spirit
The bells peel ceaselessly, an accordion trills out 1950s
French dance tunes, children screech as they recognise
models of their favourite characters, and the curator of
the normally sedate Maison Victor Hugo looks in
astonishment at the queues down the oak-panelled staircase.
As its French theme park gears up for the spring season,
nowhere is the Disney corporation's eagerness to meet
European cultural credentials more dramatically on show
than at the rambling old town house in the corner of the
Place des Vosges which now plays host to an extraordinary
exhibition, "Walt Disney Chez Victor Hugo". Launched to
mark the French opening of the feature film "The Hunchback
of Notre Dame", this show celebrates a double piece of
history: how Hugo and the 19th-century poets looked back to
the Middle Ages, and how Disney drew inspiration from their
romantic revisionism in the 1990s.
Using 19th-century prints, paintings, architectural models,
first editions, a record of theatre productions and songs
built on the popularity of Hugo's 1831 novel "Notre Dame du
Paris", it is on the one hand a fascinating investigation
into what history tells us about the historian, about how
we make sense of the present by rewriting the past.
Interspersing these with drawings and sculptures by Disney
animators, with a mini-show demonstrating how computer
generated imagery works and a video of the making of "The
Hunchback", it is on the other hand a classic of cultural
propaganda. It proposes Disney as the modern heir to
European romanticism, reworking myths for our times just as
Hugo reshaped them for the 19th century.
I am a fan of Disney, and up to a point I am prepared to
buy this story, but it is amusing to note the extremes to
which the organisers here have gone to convince that bloc
of gallic reprobates who see American cultural imperialism
eroding the French heritage and wish that Eurodisney was
sunk in the Marne.
A centrepiece of the Maison Victor Hugo in sober times, for
example, is Pilotell's "La Vision du Poete", a large
portrait of Hugo crouched beneath a gargoyle half way up
Notre Dame, with his characters floating above him in the
clouds. Here, the video of the making of "The Hunchback"
seizes on precisely this image, showing Disney animators
suspended half way up the cathedral, sketching their
gargoyles and then flicking them into life as the sheaves
of drawings turn miraculously into three-dimensional
One of Hugo's aims in writing the novel was to inspire "a
la nation l'amour de l'architecture nationale". He was
among the earliest champions of the Gothic style and a
revelation of this show are the sketchbooks and "album de
voyage" he kept as he travelled around France drawing in
professional detail fine examples - the bell tower at
Tours, the chapel door at Evreux cathedral, the eerie
moonlit castle at Vianden.
Medieval Paris, then, not the hunchback Quasimodo or
Esmeralda, the girl he loves, is the hero and the heart of
the novel, and it inspired a new reverence for Notre Dame
and numerous paintings of the cathedral.
Francois-Nicolas Chifflart's red chalk and gouache vision,
"Les truands assiegeant Notre Dame de Paris", was clearly
a model for David Martin's Disney sketch, which echoes its
menace of light and shade. Elsewhere Disney's debt to other
early interpretations, Louis Boulanger's luscious,
illustrations to the book, for instance, are emphasised.
Hugo, like Disney, was a nostalgia merchant. At a time of
rapid technological change and the advance of the machine,
when industrialisation was transforming the appearance of
cities, he evoked the Middle Ages as an era when
architecture was the work of individuals slowly building a
Gothic masterpiece, able to leave their own stamp on a
gargoyle or a stained glass window.
His 1490s Paris was peopled. however, with quintessentially
19th-century characters who are lost in Disney's cheerful
revision. Frollo the wicked monk speaks volumes about
19th-century sexual repression, not medieval corruption: in
a contemporary song-sheet here, "Les Soupirs de Claude
Frollo", a mournful, buttoned-up donnish character, a
Ruskin or Lewis Carroll, looks out of a window, skull at
his side, singing, "ah maudit soit le jour ou je suis ne"
(cursed be the day that I was born).
Esmeralda, celebrated in popular songs of the day such as
"La Bohemienne de Paris", is a typical Romantic heroine -
the gypsy femme fatale who dies, like Carmen in Merimee's
story 15 years later, a victim of male vengeance. Juxtapose
the Disney drawings of her - notably Vance Gerry's "The
Indecent Proposal", where a huge-eyed, strong-jawed
I-am-my-own-person Esmeralda tosses her head and her bold
chunky earrings with, say, Charles Steuben's docile beauty,
eyes downcast, clutching her goat in the lithograph "La
Esmeralda et sa Chevre", and you have a snap-shot of how
feminism has revived 19th-century victims into plucky
For French audiences, Esmeralda is an up-to-the-minute
heroine who stands up against racial intolerance and seeks
political asylum in Notre Dame, then looks forward to
marriage rather than martyrdom.
Balzac's verdict on Hugo's novel in 1831 - "two
descriptions, beauty and the beast, and a deluge of bad
taste" - summed up much of the recent critical response to
Disney's "Hunchback" as an inferior "Beauty and the Beast"
set against tasteless features such as singing gargoyles
called Victor and Hugo.
Both, however, have been popular successes; this exhibition
shows at once how close Hugo and Disney are in spirit and
how far a dark erotic 19th-century tale must evolve to
succeed in the sunny banality of Disneyland.
Walt Disney Chez Victor Hugo, Maison Victor Hugo, 6 place
des Vosges, Paris, until March 16.